Yona, and the message of Yom Kippur

    Seoptember 2010 High Holydays            
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Yonah – A Lesson of Self-awareness

By Chana Bracha Siegelbaum

On Yom Kippur afternoon, after having been praying, fasting and elevating our souls, we gather to hear the mysterious story of Yonah, the fleeing prophet. Through this story, we are propelled to face G-d in the deepest, innermost way, during the final neilah prayer (the last prayer of Yom Kippur) – the peak of the Yom Kippur service. Much more than an intriguing children’s story, Yonah refers to the soul, dispatched by G-d into the body, in order to learn to find G-d, even in the furthermost places (Zohar 2, 199a). Like Yonah, each one of us is sent down to earth in order to fulfill a specific mission, however, we spend most of our lives running away and hiding from our inner selves. Whether we are lead astray by fallen pleasures (represented by Tarshis –Alshich, Yonah 1:3), exterior voices of self-righteousness (“I knew it!” – Yonah 4:2), depression, or despair, (“take, please, my life from me” – Ibid. 3), we are all, eventually, called to face our innermost being, where the Divine resides. After having peeled off layer by layer of kelipot (exterior shells) during the ten days of repentance, and the repeated Vidui (confession) sessions, we got to the core when the story of Yonah prompts us to face ourselves.

Who am I really and where am I Headed?

The four questions posed by the captain to Yonah, (1:8) are really four questions that envelop every Jew throughout the stages of our lives.

1. “What is your work?” Is your task on earth to just work for the sake of receiving a salary, or to serve G-d in your particular way?

2. “Where do you come from?” Did you emanate only from a drop of semen, that you should cling to worldly pleasures, or are you a creation of G-d sent directly from the Garden of Eden?

3. “What is your country?” Are you a mortal creature of earth, or an immortal being from the Land of Life?

4. “Of what people are you?” What is your responsibility as a Jew in the world?

These verses are reflected in the voice of our conscience stirring from within, asking ourselves why we are here, why we were sent, and what we have done with our life? Through Yonah answers, “I am a Hebrew; and I fear G-d the G-d of heaven, who has made the sea and the dry land” (ibid. 9), we recover a glimmer of purpose: I am here to fulfill the mission of G-d.

From the Very Place of Escape We Ultimately Return to G-d and Ourselves

On the journey towards ourselves, we often have to go down to the depths like Yonah. In chapter 1, the root of the Hebrew word 'yared' (going down) appears four times, twice in verse 2 and twice in verse 5. It is interesting to note that also the word for going to sleep derives from the root “to go down.” Sleep is the ultimate going down, the ultimate escape. However, within the ultimate depths of sleep is a kernel of closeness to G-d, since dreams are one sixtieth of prophesy (Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 57b). Though Yonah may be escaping the reality of life, he is ultimately bringing himself closer to his inner world, where nothing exists but G-d. “One pursues something by running away from it” (Adam Phillips). It often happens in life, that our fears become self-fulfilling prophesies. Wherever we escape to, we are challenged with the very same issue from which we escaped. Yonah, as an escape artist, teaches us that just as you cannot run away from G-d, neither can you run away from others or from yourself. Yonah was running away from helping the gentiles to repent, yet through his very escape, he actually caused the sailors to convert (Rashi, Yonah 1:16). Until we have completed the tikun (repair) with a particular person, that archetype will re-appear in our lives, the more we try to avoid dealing this type of person.

Innate Fear of the Intimacy of Being Present

Ibn Ezra noticed that the Hebrew word 'barach' – to escape, is usually connected with the Hebrew word mepnai' (from). Only in the book of Yonah does it appear together with the word 'melifnai' (from). Yonah wasn’t just running away from G-d, he was running away from being before/in the presence of G-d (Yonah 1:3). The word Yonah also means dove. Our soul is like a bird trapped in the cage of our routine. Just as our habits trap and block us from self awareness, so does the desire to fly away/flee, on the other end of the spectrum take us away from standing before G-d. The the silent prayer, literary “the standing,” is our central prayer, especially on Yom Kippur, when we are standing and acknowledging that we cannot fly. In our effort to stand in the presence of G-d, we recognize our fear to be present and our tendency to run away. We become keenly aware of our dependency on G-d’s constant grace.

Like Yonah, we cannot bear to recognize that our existence hangs between life and death. We quickly move forward into the thought that everything will be alright without realizing that true emunah (belief) is accepting that even if it’s not going to be “alright,” it is still really alright. In a class with Aviva Zornberg many years ago, I learned that Yonah’s prayer from within the fish is actually an after-prayer, escaping from the presence of G-d. Although Yonah is in mortal danger, and the fish could become his grave, unless G-d saves him. Nevertheless, he prays in the past tense as if he was already saved. “I was in trouble and you saved me.” The merciful [G-d] wants our heart” (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 106b). He wants our attentiveness, readiness, intimacy, desire and even fear. Any kind of pain is really a wake up call, towards awareness of feeling and being in the present. Just as G-d prepared a storm/fish/wind/castor-oil-plant/worm, for Yonah, He continues to insert experiences into human time, in order to make us feel this and that, so that we become really present in the moment.

Playing Mind Games with G-d

The book of Yonah has exactly 48 verses which is the numerical value of the Hebrew word moach which means brain. There is an inner struggle in the book of Yonah between mind and heart. Rabbi Rivlin explains that the nature of prophets is to express emet, truth. The blessings of the Haftorah from the prophets read: – “Who has chosen their faithful [true] words… in the truth of the prophets of truth and justice…” With our minds we are trying to grasp truth and justice. Although not always possible, we try to make sense out of what we see in this world. Most of the times, we forget that our mind is so limited.

Even the prophet is far from understanding the way G-d runs His world. He can only see what G-d allows him to see. Yonah is ben Amitai –the son of truth (Yonah 1:1). Yonah disagreed with G-d, maintaining the importance of truth rather than chesed (kindness). Chesed can be disturbing from the vantage point of justice, and teshuva (repentence) isn’t really fair. Why should the wicked people be saved? Don’t they deserve to be punished? “They asked Prophecy, ‘What is the punishment of sinners?’ She told them, ‘The soul of the sinner will die.’ They asked the Holy One ‘What is the punishment of the sinner?’ He answered ‘Let him do teshuva and be atoned for’” (Jerusalem Talmud, Makot 7a). When Yonah recounts from the thirteen principles of G-d’s mercy, he leaves out the word – emet – truth. Yonah was insinuating that G-d was too kind to the people of Nineve. His mercy and forgiveness are not truly deserved by the people of Nineve, since their teshuva is not a true teshuva. The order of the words – chanun v'rachum, gracious and merciful – are inverted, perhaps in order to emphasize the word chanun which means - a free gift. Just as Yonah seems to know better than G-d what is just and fair, we also play mind games with G-d. In truth, the gift of teshuva and atonement is never really fair, for who can claim to repent in the deepest and truest way?

G-d’s Love Beyond Grasp and Discernment

G-d touches Yonah’s heart through the growth of the castor oil plant, but it immediately wilts. He experiences on his own body how the world cannot continue through truth and judgment without chesed. Just as Yonah is unable to exist unprotected against the sun, so is the world unable to exist under G-d's justice alone. A veil between G-d's justice and His creation is necessary, in order that the creation will not be consumed by fire. This veil also conceals G-d's presence in the world, and makes it impossible for us to fully understand G-d's ways. Trying to grasp with our mind, rather than feeling and experiencing is a way escaping G-d. In our attempt to grasp G-d’s ways, we are taking control rather than allowing ourselves to experience how we are being controlled by G-d. On the Day of Atonement, it is encouraging to know how G-d will accept our teshuva even if it is far from being perfect. On Yom Kippur, G-d's unconditional love for us is manifested beyond reason. It is our job to receive and surrender, rather than trying to grasp G-d’s ways. Perhaps, this is why the book of Yonah ends in a most absurd question: “…and should not I have pity on Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than six-score thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand, and also much cattle?” (Yonah 4:11).

Chana Bracha Siegelbaum, a native of Denmark, is Founder and Director of Midreshet B’erot Bat Ayin: Holistic Torah Study for Women. She holds a Bachelor of Education in Bible and Jewish Philosophy from Michlala Jerusalem College for Women, and a Masters of Art in Jewish History from Touro College. Please contact her at director@berotbatayin.org or visit her website www.berotbatayin.org.


from the September 2010 High Holyday Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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